Amateur night 

What a weird and inglorious beginning to a daring television experiment. At 10 p.m. on Monday, July 14, debut night for WMYD-TV's improbable My TV20 News at Ten, Detroit's newest newscast opened with a story about FEMA's efforts to help rebuild homes and businesses destroyed by flooding along the Mississippi River.

Then came the music and the snazzy graphics. The customary deep-voice announcer intoned, "This is FOX 18, Nine O'Clock News," and the image dissolved to a shot of two stone-faced anchors, Libby Allison and John Beard.

WTF? Suddenly, TV20 was channeling the late-night news from KLJB-TV, the FOX affiliate in Davenport, Iowa!

Somebody hurriedly slapped a "My TV20 Detroit" logo on the screen. Silence and dead air for 15 seconds. Then, just as suddenly, another news set appeared with a second set of anchors, Sunya Wells and Nathan O'Leary.

Who are these people? Where are they coming from? For that matter, where is Channel 20 coming from?

Since that inauspicious launch, the quality of My TV 20 News at Ten has progressed by leaps and bounds. In a month and a half, it has improved all the way to inferior. This Monday-through-Friday half hour is — what's the kindest way to put it? — an embarrassment. It's the Not Ready for Prime Time Newscast.

Remember Back to You, the short-lived but extremely amusing newsroom parody on FOX last season with Kelsey Grammer and Patty Heaton? That's what this feeble attempt at a news broadcast brings to mind, right down to the hot-tamale Latina meteorologist and the monotonal, Tank McNamara-like sportscaster. All that's missing is the one-night stand and illegitimate daughter between the two co-anchors. We assume.

The news writing is shallow, the delivery uninspired. Cuts between stories are choppy and sloppy. Identifying graphics appear over faces rather than below them, or on the wrong stories. One recent Jeremy Moss sportscast was interrupted in midsentence by 10 seconds of a movie ad for Tropic Thunder. I actually heard O'Leary refer to the Dream Cruise as winding along "Woodland" Avenue. You can almost hear first-year students at the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts drooling, "Let me on that set for a hot minute!" But nowhere was the vast gulf between My TV20 News at Ten and its professional competition on Channels 2, 4 and 7 more glaring than on Aug. 5, the night of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick's narrow victory in the Democratic primary election.

While the other stations carried live shots from the campaign headquarters or victory parties of the candidates, TV20 flashed photographs of the contenders on screen while reporting the vote totals. Why? Because TV20 only has two street reporters, Jorge Avellan, an intense young chap who came over from Univision Detroit, and Dave Leval, a shot-and-a-beer type who looks like he's in retraining from a lost job at Chrysler. Two reporters, no matter how earnest or talented, cannot cover all the stories in a news city as sizzling as Detroit; heck, they've been on Kwame Watch every day since the newscast premiered. Worse, the station has virtually no file footage stored up to fill in its storytelling gaps. Their slogan is "News Without the Noise," but all they have is noise. It's more like "News Without the Video," which is also known as "radio."

Susie Martin, the curly-haired meteorologist of Costa Rican heritage, is the best thing on the newscast. Bubbly, articulate and telegenic, she may not have the presence of a Hodak or Madaus, but no one has ever called them a hottie, either. Sadly, a nightly four-minute forecast does not a watchable news program make.

Successful local newscasts need big budgets for manpower and equipment, and familiar faces whose work viewers know and trust. My TV20 News at Ten has neither at present. And since the FOX2 10 o'clock news shows no apparent signs of erosion, TV20's emergence can only be seen as a shameless money grab, an attempt to siphon off some viewers from a superior product. (Not for nothing did this newscast arrive right in the middle of political campaign ad spending season.)

In Wikipedia, Walls, O'Leary and Martin all are listed as employees of something called the Independent News Network, based in, of all places, Davenport, Iowa! Hmmmm. And Channel 20 doesn't have the physical space to construct its own news set. Hmmmm again. Do these vagabonds think our main street really is called Woodland Avenue?

Channel this: With summer coming to a close, let's reflect on what an amazing TV season this has been! The nightly news soap opera surrounding our wacky mayor; the most compelling Summer Olympic games in memory, filled with Phelps and Bolt and new controversy every day, and the first African-American ever nominated as president of the United States. In case you'd forgotten, this is why you bought that big lighted box in the first place.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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